John Sloan: Cats and Dogs
March 31, 2015
John Sloan was a cat person. One of his earliest paintings, Green’s Cats, 1900—a stunning art nouveau composition in black and white—features the cats-in-residence at Green’s Hotel and Bar, a popular gathering place for the staff of the Philadelphia Press, where he was employed as an illustrator. Black cats stalk through snow in Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1914 (Whitney Museum of American Art), one of his most famous paintings. A grey cat finds a likely mark in Chinese Restaurant, 1907 (Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester), and still more cats surround the bartender in McSorley’s Cats, 1929. Cats were and are a familiar feature of urban life, so it is hardly surprising that they populate Sloan’s city pictures. Of course, there are plenty of dogs in New York: his friends Jerome and Ethel Myers noted them in their city scenes, as did William Glackens and his wife Edith Dimock Glackens. But Sloan generally turned a blind eye toward dogs, preferring the wily and independent felines of the city.
Sloan did depict dogs on occasion, especially when canines rose to the level of national news. Dogs seem to have caught his attention in 1905 when New York’s kennel clubs were in the spotlight. That year the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show became the largest dog show ever, with 1,752 contestants. 1905 also marked the 21st birthday of the American Kennel Club, an occasion celebrated by hundreds (including the club’s “conservative and radical elements”), though unfortunately the festivities were overshadowed by the scandalous case of Eastover Lancelot, a prize-winning Boston terrier that had been accused of having an “unnatural” curl to his tail. (He was cleared of malfeasance after multiple veterinary examinations and a round of X-rays.) Both stories were reported on December 22 in the New York Times, and the following day, Sloan produced a puzzle for the Philadelphia Press entitled “What Varieties of Dogs Are Shown Here?” which appeared in print on January 14, 1906. A few panels—each one a rebus representing the name of a dog breed—are reproduced here. (And if you enjoy this sort of puzzle, don’t miss The Puzzling World of John Sloan this summer.)
Around 1910, Sloan visited a dog show—most likely the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, just down the street from his home. It was still a period of growth for the show, with thousands of entries and high-profile contestants owned by millionaires like George J. Gould (pointers) and Reginald C. Vanderbilt (Old English Sheepdogs).
While on site, Sloan made dozens of sketches of dogs and their owners. A few have comic motifs—the backside of a man bending over resembles the dog to his left, and the profile of a woman echoes that of her Saint Bernard—but most are typical examples of Sloan’s figure studies. In the years that he was painting city subjects, Sloan filled sketchbooks and covered sheets and scraps of paper with quick drawings of figures in motion. Occasionally these informed specific paintings, etchings, or illustrations, but more often they served sketching practice—or even seeing practice—allowing the artist to populate his urban pictures with convincingly rendered figures from memory. Sloan’s dog show sketches focus as much on the handlers and spectators as the canine contestants, and they did not find their way into finished compositions. For Sloan, dogs would only be a cipher—an idea for a puzzle, an accessory for a person—while cats captured his imagination and featured in major works of art.